Back in 1962, the politically charged film The Manchurian Candidate was not your average thriller. Based on Richard Condon's equally cynical book, the film concentrated on a group of Korean War soldiers brainwashed by the U.S. government. In the still patriotic post-World War II era, it was one of the first mainstream films to express a certain distrust in The Powers That Be. In an untimely bit of coincidence, however, the film was pulled from theaters shortly after its release by producer/star Frank Sinatra when President John F. Kennedy was killed by an assassin's bullet (closely mirroring a major plot element in the film). Considered a “hidden classic” until a home video revival a decade or so ago, The Manchurian Candidate remains a prescient political potboiler.
Now, some 40 years later, director Jonathan Demme (Something Wild, Philadelphia, The Silence of the Lambs) tries his hand at a remake. Thankfully, the film has lost none of its controversial edge, even adding a few layers of strident sociopolitical commentary.
The script, by Daniel Pyne (The Sum of All Fears) and Dean Georgaris (Paycheck), sticks fairly close to George Axelrod's original Cold War screenplay. The events, however, have been updated and the paranoia ramped up to full 21st-century speed.
Denzel Washington plays Major Bennet Marco, a Gulf War vet plagued by a series of mysterious and grisly nightmares. Seems that 10 years ago, Marco and his platoon were ambushed out in the Kuwaiti desert and were only saved by the quick thinking and selfless bravery of one Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), who single-handedly fought off the Iraqi attackers. For some reason, however, Marco's nightmares seem to tell a different story. Marco is able to shake off his suspicions—at least until he learns that he may not be the only member of his platoon having these nightmares. Is all this paranoia just a symptom of severe Gulf War Syndrome, or is it possible that Marco and his compatriots were brainwashed out in the desert? And if they were, what would be the purpose of creating a fake war hero?
When Marco's Medal of Honor-winning sergeant (now a New York senator) is suddenly picked as his party's new vice presidential nominee, the major's suspicions begin to grow. Is this all part of an elaborate experiment to put a puppet in the White House?
Even more than the original, The Manchurian Candidate is filled with timely political commentary. “Manchurian,” for example, no longer refers to a section of China, but a global corporation possibly manipulating the American electoral system for their own financial gain. Meryl Streep (taking over for the indelible Angela Landsbury) plays Eleanor Prentiss-Shaw, Raymond's mother, a neo-con senator with her own manipulative agenda. References to stealing elections, terrorist attacks and media complacency give the film a “ripped from today's headlines” feel.
Looked at on the surface, The Manchurian Candidate seems like a far more cutting indictment of the current administration than even Fahrenheit 9/11. The idea of a political party resorting to such Machiavellian means to win an election now no longer seems so far-fetched. The script carefully sidesteps any mention of Republicans or Democrats, but it's quite clear who these jabs are aimed at. Casting “Voice of America” wag Al Franken as a network news anchor gives you a pretty good idea what side of the fence Demme is shooting from.
Even so, the film clearly points out that the problem lies not with “conservatives” or “liberals” or even “the government,” but with a very vocal, ultra-right-wing minority trying to usurp positions of power by any means necessary. The film wrings some nice pathos from the fact that Shaw himself is actually a much more forward-thinking, center-leaning “compassionate conservative” whose ideals are being destroyed by his evil controllers. The villains here are self-serving profiteers who use patriotism, security and “American values” as an excuse to rob people of their individual liberty (and their individual identity in this extreme case).
Politics aside, the film builds as a shocking, hold-your-breath thriller. The grim, surreal dream sequences make this a particularly nasty-edged popcorn movie. The plot is both complex and convoluted, but it all comes together in the end. Think of it like an episode of the “The X-Files” directed by Michael Moore.
The film has a few logical gaps and wears its agenda a little too much on its sleeve to achieve the timeless brilliance of the original. Still, Demme's take couldn't be more seasonable: an eerie summertime thriller that gives us a hint of the turbulent political fall ahead of us.
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